Fri, May 12, 2006 - Page 1 News List

UN, North Korea agree to scaled-back food aid program

AP , BEIJING

The World Food Program (WFP) has reached an agreement to resume food aid to hunger-stricken North Korea after a six-month suspension, but the operation will be much smaller than before, the UN agency said yesterday.

The WFP will feed 1.9 million of the "most needy" people in the North, Tony Banbury, the agency's Asia regional director, said at a news conference in Beijing. That is sharply down from the 6.5 million people the agency was feeding in past years.

The WFP suspended aid in December after the North asked it to switch focus to economic development, claiming its food supplies were adequate. The agency argued that the change was too abrupt and would leave millions hungry.

The new agreement was signed with North Korean officials on Wednesday in Pyongyang, Banbury said.

"We would have liked to see a bigger operation, but that was not possible at this time," he said, citing North Korean objections.

Banbury said food distribution would begin by the end of next week, but it could take much longer to bring the program up to full speed.

The program will give vitamin-enriched biscuits to schoolchildren and high-nutrition porridge to pregnant women, infants and new mothers. Food supplies will also be furnished to needy families in exchange for work on irrigation projects and other community development, he said.

About 4 million people will be cut off from WFP food distribution, many of them old people, Banbury said.

North Korean authorities told the WFP they would be fed through state grain subsidies.

However, the state distribution system is known to be unreliable and understocked, so without additional food from family members or other sources, those cut off could "face a very difficult situation," Banbury said.

Banbury said North Korea justified the smaller program by saying it did not want to foster a "culture of dependency" after a decade of foreign assistance and that its harvests had improved.

He said the WFP supported those goals, but still believed a larger program was needed. Grain supplied this year will fall to just 67,500 tonnes, down from the 460,800 tonnes that had been planned for last year, he said.

Under the new agreement, the WFP will be allowed to place 10 foreign staff members in North Korea and an office in the capital, Pyongyang, Banbury said. In the past, the agency had up to 48 foreigners in the country and five regional offices in addition to the capital.

The geographic scope of the program was also reduced from 163 counties, to just 30, he said.

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